LOS ANGELES/MADRID/LONDON (US/SPAIN/UK) – The rooftop solar panel industry, which was surging ahead, was pummeled overnight when the coronavirus crisis forced people to curb spending.
In their bid to survive, firms in the US and Europe have resorted to digital marketing and they are using drones to inspect roofs. The firms are also arranging digital permits and announcing attractive new financing plans.
Amid the transition from fossil fuels to greener options worldwide, solar power was the second-fastest growing renewable source after wind in 2019. But it is staring at a bleak future.
Before the pandemic struck, rooftop installations, which generate power used by homes or businesses, made up more than 40% of the market.
Energy research institution Wood Mackenzie has reduced its predictions for rooftop solar installation in Europe and the United States by a massive 30% this year. But its predictions for Asia have gone up by 3% as Beijing provides strong support for the segment.
Joana Palau, 42, hailing from the Spanish island of Ibiza, was one of the people in her neighbourhood to go ahead with the plan to install 12 solar panels on her farmhouse in June: “If I had not been working and did not have the stability of a salary every month, I definitely wouldn’t have done it.”
According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, in the US, which is the third biggest rooftop solar market after China and Japan, 80% of the 100,000 job cuts in the solar segment have been at rooftop installers.
Staff who retained their jobs faced a big challenge: how to reduce the cost of identifying households with suitable roofs and coax them to buy solar panels.
In no time, firms made appointments virtual.
US installers SunPower Corp, Vivint Solar Inc and Sunrun Inc said that potential clients worried about the virus. It slashed the cost of acquiring customers, which Wood Mackenzie estimates at nearly $4,000, or 22% of the average $18,000 cost of a US system.
Vivint trained its salespersons to do phone marketing as it witnessed a 60% slump in sales after the lockdowns, Chief Executive David Bywater said.
By early May, sales were down only 30%.
“It was a radical shift,” said Bywater, adding that it had hastened Vivint’s plan to diversify sales strategies and cut costs: “I hope we never lose that and we accelerate that.”
The strategy proved to be successful that rival Sunrun announced on July 7 that it had agreed to buy Vivint in an all-stock deal worth $3.2 billion, saving $90 million a year.
It acquired Vivint because of its focus on direct selling. Sunrun Chief Executive Officer Lynn Jurich the model had become even more durable during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Both companies are delivering above where we expected.”
SunPower has also shifted to digital sales with about three-quarters of consultations taking place via video chat.
Chief Executive Tom Werner said he expected half of its sales would be digital from now on.
In Europe, rooftop solar companies came out with enticing finance plans to woo worried customers.
SotySolar in Spain expedited the roll-out of a “Netflix-style” subscription plan. After installing panels, it collects a monthly fee. Customers can later buy them or end the contract, said co-founder Daniel Fernandez.
“We have been thinking about doing this for a while but we brought it forward because of this situation,” he said.
Renewable energy utility Holaluz in Barcelona has quickened the pace of the initiative to set up panels free for people with available roof space – and use them to generate power for all its customers. It plans to expand the plan by bringing it to apartments and commercial buildings.
Holaluz plans to boost clients to one million and set up 50,000 rooftop solar installations by 2023. As per estimates, fewer than 10,000 Spanish homes currently have panels.
“This is the rooftop revolution,” said co-founder Carlota Pi. “We have spent so much time at home, we have become much more conscious of the value you can create by transforming your roof into a source of energy generation.”
(Photos syndicated via Reuters)
This story has been edited by BH staff and is published from a syndicated field